With the exception of rock star and possibly journalist, there’s no job in the world that I’d rather have than being a stand-up comedian. Yes, I love my job as a teacher—delivering lectures to college students on how an essay is like a cheeseburger rather than one-liners to a bunch of drunken hecklers at Helium Comedy Club – but, oh, how I dream of being on a stage, lone spotlight shining down on me, sweat glistening on my brow, as I prepare to offer up my best imitation of a wet fart sound after a hard night of drinking and a Nachos Bell Grande. As it stands, I have to settle for my students’ muffled laughter and rolling eyes when I try, unsuccessfully, try to crack a joke about the consequences of “missing buns” in their essays (see above burger metaphor).
So, I’m not funny. But, Tina Fey is, and so is her book. And, I’m glad she’s funny – and MAINSTREAM funny at that – because many “people” (read: men) think women aren’t funny. But they’re wrong. Women are funny; they’re just funny in different ways. It’s kind of like how we have to water down British comedy shows when they come to America; it’s not because they’re lame, but more because we just don’t get their humor. Same with female comedians. If male comics have been funny because audiences think dick jokes are funny, then it’s not going to be funny when a woman makes a uterus joke because the uterus has not been a butt as often or as long as a dick.
It is this kind of analysis of comedy, show biz, and the working world in general that Tina Fey offers in her book Bossypants. In a funny, ironic, and sometimes painful way, the memoir is structured as one part woman’s magazine, filled with lists of do’s and don’ts, beauty tips, job advice, Q&A’s, and “letters to the editor” (well, more like disgusting and degrading emails to the author), and two parts humiliating, yet satisfying, story of a girl’s journey to be a person on this planet. The beginning, which chronicles her childhood and teen years, is much like adolescence itself: choppy, awkward, and stilted. Actually, I almost put the book down, thinking that Tina Fey should stick to short scripts and improv. But, I kept at it because I knew that if she was anything like the graceless, ugly duckling I had been, she’d pull through and turn into a graceless, ugly swan by the end.
I think the problem with reading the first few chapters, for women like me anyway, is that we don’t want to relive those awful teen years again, no matter how funny someone makes them seem. What we want to see is how that strange girl later grows up to kick some ass. We don’t care about the journey, mainly because almost every girl in America – whether she’s J-Lo or Jenny from the block – has the same torturous story. It’s old now. Let’s move on and show everyone how we wind up in great careers, with great friends, and great husbands despite the fact that you called us “wooly mammoths” every day for all of seventh grade. And, I think Fey feels the same way because the narrative really picks up when she hits Chicago and starts working for Second City, showing that she seems more comfortable writing about her adult self (as I would be, too) than her teen self.
As much as I really like this book (I gave it 4 stars on Goodreads for crying out loud!), there are some problems with its content, structure, and the many “mixed” messages it contains. In terms of content, Fey includes some great anecdotes, and she is spot-on with her deadpan wit and sarcasm, but, in general, the book tries to tackle too much and tries too hard to be the anti-memoir, thereby making it a bit juvenile and unfocused at times. Not saying that all memoirs must have a linear, uninterrupted storyline or theme, but I find this memoir to be particularly vexing in its editing and organization. For example, Fey’s chapters on motherhood seem like afterthoughts, as if someone told her that if she REALLY wants to be seen as a modern American woman, she HAS to include chapters on mothering so that the audience can see her as the quintessential working/domestic woman.
It also looks as if either she or her editor thought that adding these chapters would soften her image a bit by showing her nurturing, gooey side in contrast to the sarcastic self that she presents throughout the rest of the book. Even though Fey understands and makes many jokes of the double-edged sword women face in terms of maintaining a career and a family, she knowingly or, possibly, unknowingly advocates the same cliché idea that women can and should be all things to all people and, in this case, all audiences.
Not to say that her views on motherhood aren’t important or relevant to her life story, but they don’t connect with the tone of the rest of the book, and they also don’t offer anything new in terms of perspective. Even Fey herself says, “Like most people who have had one baby, I am an expert on everything and will tell you, unsolicited, how to raise your kid!” She obviously recognizes how routine and silly it is to give anyone mothering advice, yet goes on to do just that. And, even though she’s funny about it, she capitalizes on the same old stories of women judging each other because of their childrearing techniques and how that perpetuates feelings of female inadequacy.
Aside from the awkward motherhood chapters, Fey also struggles with maintaining a consistent point of view. For example, in the midst of all the “I’m a Feminist!” hype throughout the book, she mainly attributes her most valuable lessons in business and in life to men. On the one hand, I’m totally fine with this because I grew up in a family with all boys, and the majority of my closest friends were and are men; so, as a woman, I know having good men – or anyone different from yourself, really – in your life is an important part of developing a balanced sense of self. However, if I were writing my own memoir, I’d probably include at least one chapter on my mom (unless, of course, I hated my mom, which I don’t), but Fey, who also doesn’t seem to dislike her mother, devotes no significant time to her and the role she has played in the comedian’s life. Mama Fey makes short cameos throughout the book, but it is Fey’s father – the imposing and inscrutable Don Fey – who gets the bulk of the attention, not only as her personal hero but as the man all her (male) colleagues look up to as well. In terms of people who have influenced her career, she does mention a few women, like Amy Poehler and Maya Rudolph, but she mainly describes them as supportive colleagues, as equals, but not so much as mentors. In this regard, she gives most of the credit to Lorne Michaels and Alec Baldwin.
Another problem is Fey’s blatant contradiction within her own solution for the lack of credibility given to females in show business. After a diatribe on how older actresses are often deemed “crazy” and therefore, unemployable after a certain age, she states, “It seems to me that the fastest remedy for this ‘Women Are Crazy’ situation is for more women to become producers and hire diverse women of various ages.” Nice thought and so true, right? Right – except this view doesn’t jive with the part of the book in which she actually becomes an Executive Producer herself.
In the chapter “30 Rock: An Experiment to Confuse Your Grandparents,” Fey explains that her first executive act was hiring nine staffers (eight writers and one co-producer/writer), but, as the audience can clearly count, only two of them were women. She even goes so far as to hire a young, male writer straight out of college, when, to be sure, there were probably many older, more experienced women in the comedy writing pool whom she could have chosen. Sadly, it seems that even Fey, deep down, might agree that women just aren’t that funny.
Equally disconcerting is that Fey doesn’t seem to fancy herself as much of a boss at all. While the book is titled Bossypants, we are not treated to many stories of her actually being a boss. There are a few parts in which she laments the difficult decisions a boss must make, illustrated by her conflict between having another child and keeping her 30 Rock staff employed. However, except for a few tidbits of advice at the beginning of the book, such as the played-out “don’t cry in meetings,” Fey leaves much to be desired for women who actually want to know what it’s like to be a female boss in a high-powered, male-dominated environment.
Despite my criticisms, ultimately, I’m a huge Fey fan. And while I may never become a media darling like she is, even in my very real, very unglamorous life in academia, I appreciate and understand the overarching theme of this book: women want to be taken seriously and judged solely on the merit of their work, not on their looks, sex appeal, or lack thereof. And, like Fey, it would behoove many women to acknowledge that to get there, they have to play the game, and that playing the game sometimes means not only having, but buddying up to, a pair of balls.